The Maine-themed restaurant group Luke’s Lobster is building a new location at the end of Portland Pier that is destined to become one of the Portland waterfront’s most prominent eateries.

The restaurant at 60 Portland Pier will be the seafood chain’s largest by far, with 175 indoor seats and a patio that seats 25, according to company founder Luke Holden, a native of Cape Elizabeth. The typical Luke’s location seats about 25 patrons.

Set to open at the beginning of summer 2019, the Portland Pier location will be Luke’s second in Maine. It also will be one of the largest restaurants on the Portland waterfront.

The size of the planned eatery and the relative scarcity of parking options along the waterfront prompted one restaurant industry leader to express concerns about potential oversaturation of the market. Portland’s waterfront area has seen an explosion of new development over the past decade, including a handful of large restaurants.

But Holden is taking a long view of his investment in the pier development. The planned restaurant will adjoin an existing lobster wholesaling and distribution facility also operated by Luke’s Lobster that opened in July. Founded in 2009, Luke’s operates 40 seafood eateries across the country, including Luke’s at Tenants Harbor in St. George. Luke’s operations include a Saco-based seafood company where 100 percent of the Portland Pier catch is processed.

The Portland restaurant and wholesaling projects have prompted a major renovation of the aging pier that includes structural fortification and the installation of new pilings and floats equipped with water and power for use by fishermen who dock there to sell their catches. Holden declined to disclose the cost of the renovations and additions.

“This part of the pier was at risk of falling into the water,” Holden said in an interview. “We’ll be making continual improvements; it’s just in our nature.”

The restaurant and adjacent lobster pound will be closely linked, he said, and restaurant patrons will be able to view the pound’s massive lobster holding tanks through a large glass panel. Holden said the combination of wholesale and retail operations will add an educational component to the restaurant experience.

“What we love about this project is the collaborative nature of the working waterfront and a restaurant,” Holden said.

A CROWDED CORRIDOR

Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine – formerly the Maine Innkeepers and Maine Restaurant associations – said he is concerned about market oversaturation in the waterfront restaurant scene.

In general, the rapid pace of new development in downtown Portland – including hotels, offices, condominiums, restaurants and company headquarters – has garnered criticism from a variety of groups worried about increased traffic, lack of parking and the potential disruption of traditional waterfront activities.

“No doubt our restaurants and hotels represent a success story for the city and are driving new businesses, employees and other residents to want to move here,” Hewins said. “But eventually there is a tipping point. This growth cycle is not endless and downturns eventually occur. Then what happens to Luke’s Lobster and all the other larger and smaller restaurants operating in Portland?”

Hewins said the large size of the planned restaurant is a concern, as is the relative lack of parking in the area and proposed new city rules that would make it more difficult for every restaurant owner to succeed.

Parking on the Luke’s property is limited to roughly 10 spaces.

“Not only is the competition fierce in one of America’s greatest restaurant cities, but the City Council is now considering mandatory employee rules and regulations, and imposing new fees on hospitality businesses. There is talk of a local option tax on tourists,” Hewins said. “So, it is more than another new restaurant causing angst among restaurateurs. If new restaurants are going to be successful, not at the expense of existing ones, we need to better support the industry to keep it healthy and growing.”

For his part, waterfront restaurant owner Steven DiMillo of DiMillo’s On the Water said he isn’t worried about the added competition from Luke’s.

DiMillo, who sold the end of the pier to its current owner in March, said he wasn’t expecting the buyer to lease it to a restaurant owner. Still, he praised the current property owner and said a savvy restaurant operator can succeed despite the presence of competitors.

“I’m a one-for-all and all-for-one kind of guy,” DiMillo said. “It is what it is. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

APPROVED USES

The site is already under construction, having received the required building permits from the city of Portland. City Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman said property owner Portland Pier Holdings, a Portland-based real estate company that has owned property on Portland Pier for over 20 years, went through the required steps before leasing the site to Luke’s.

Those steps included advertising the property through local media outlets and giving marine-related businesses first priority before leasing to a restaurant operator, he said. The city also has a requirement that about half of the property be used for marine purposes, which the lobster pound portion of the business satisfies.

Needelman said the restaurant project did not require a full site plan approval process because it is being built inside an existing structure – a two-story building that was previously used as a residence.

“Because there was no real building addition going on, they met the threshold for what is called an administrative authorization, which is the lowest level of site plan review,” he said.

Needelman added that there is no city requirement for businesses located on a pier to come up with a dedicated parking solution for their customers, since parking is so scarce.

Monique Coombs, director of marine programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and an advocate for Maine’s working waterfront, said her organization approves of what Luke’s is doing because of the marine component.

“The working waterfront is critical to Maine’s economy and its character,” Coombs said. “We need more projects and companies that support our fishermen the way Luke’s does.”